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The English Defence League rioted again in Leicester (which happens to be my father’s hometown) last weekend. Something like 1200 or more EDL activists were bussed in, despite a (silly) official ban on the march, and the predictable result was a fair amount of low-level violence and intimidation. The majority of EDL demonstrators were effectively penned in for the day by the police and spent most of their energy shouting “come on then” to UAF supporters over the cops’ heads; meanwhile, smaller bands of possibly independent and sometimes local thugs given courage by the EDL marauded around town, looking for trouble, making random attacks on Muslim-looking passers-by and businesses.
John Cruddas has suggested that the EDL is now a bigger threat than the BNP. This has prompted Mira to re-post about June’s Dissent blog post on this – also cross-posted at Harry’s Place, where it attracts an audience of EDL apologists, despite the best efforts of Gene and other above-the-line commentators. However, it seems to me that HP, to his credit, has made it clearer and clearer through the week that it has no time for this audience. Shiraz Maher at Standpoint is very good on the politics at stake here.
As far as I can tell, there have been five main political responses, all of them inadequate – although I don't know what an adequate response would look like. Hope Not Hate organised populist unity events the days before and after, urged residents to stay out of the city, and told people to leave the EDL to the police. (As the voice of HnH, see Nick Lowles in the JC.) This seems to me unsatisfactory, because it effectively gives the EDL a victory in advance, and disempowers residents. Unite Against Fascism have made a big deal of being the “militant” alternative to HnH, and mobilised people in a counter-demonstration, but only managed to get a few hundred out, who I believe were kettled in by the police in a predictable set piece. Although I can understand why this seems more morally satisfying than the HnH route, I can’t see it as being a more effective response. The long Socialist Unity comment thread on this was depressing, with both sides wheeling out stale clichés from bygone ages to justify their positions, with Andy Newman and other HnH supporters trotting out the usual accusations of “ultra-leftistm” and “squadism” and the UAF supporters responding with “popular frontism”, is if the right course was settled eight decades ago.
Third, residents in Highfields and some of the neighbourhoods of Leicester that expected to be targeted by the EDL did what Jewish and black communities have done in Britain from the Cardiff riots of 1919, to Cable Street in 1936, to the Leeds and Manchester pogroms of 1947, to the Notting Hill riots of 1958, to the NF wave of terror in East London in the late 1970s. That is, they organised themselves to defend their neighbourhoods. Luckily, the EDL didn’t get that near them, and there was relatively little violence. I have seen a couple of reports of independent anti-fascist activists from places like Lincoln avoiding the official demos to link up with them, which seems like a decent enough approach. (See the report of the AWL.)
Fourth and fifth, there now seem to be two rival groups called the Muslim Defence League. The MDL mirrors some of the EDL “divisions” in that they don't have much concrete organisational existence off of Facebook groups organised by anonymous people. I can’t get much sense of how much they actually mobilised on the day, although they do seem to have had some presence – any readers who have a better picture than I do, please comment. I understand the motivation behind them. Hannah Arendt, who had little or no Jewish cultural consciousness, said when you’re attacked as a Jew you defend yourself as a Jew. For the Asian youth of Leicester, mostly working class second or third generation Midlands with Gujerati Indian routes, they fee under attack as Muslims. In other words, the presence of the EDL drives a Muslim identity politics that mirrors the EDL’s belligerent identitarian practices. As far as I can tell, one wing of the MDL (associated with the Facebook operator Chechnyan Wolf) openly embraces essentially fascist Muslim identity politics, dripping with antisemitism, anti-Hindu hatred and glorification of jihadi terror – almost like cartoon bogeymen the EDL have dreamed into being. The other MDL, “MDL United We Stand Divided We Fall”, which seems to have some connection to the SWP/UAF, has disassociated itself with that sort of fascism. (As an aside, my internet digging suggests to me that a chilling, widely circulating, heavily edited YouTube video of EDL thugs attacking terrified women in Big John’s kebab may be local thugs not directly connected to the EDL hierarchy hunting down MDL activists who had badly messed up their logistics on the day. Any authoritative comments on that incident are welcome.)
As ever, Modernity has some of the best coverage of the EDL, including: a piece by Adam Levick cross-posted from CiFWatch, which is essential reading for anyone who is tempted by their anti-Islamist veneer. I have a slight difference of interpretation from Modernity. He stresses the fascist and even Nazi connections of the EDL, which is rhetorically useful in winning over readers of CiFWatch and Harry’s Place who might be tempted by the EDL’s apparent anti-Islamist message. But I am not sure it is useful in analysing the nature of the threat posed by the EDL, which seems to me to be something other than fascist and requiring a new framework for understanding.
The other blogger with the best EDL coverage is Malatesta. He has a similar line to Modernity, stressing the essentially Nazi nature of the EDL. Another angle he stresses, which in my view is more significant, is their relationship with terrace culture. Contra John Cruddas, he also downplays their electoral potential. Finally, this is a good summary of his analysis.
A related issue is the EDL’s international connections – both across the Atlantic to right-wing ideologues like Pamela Geller and the Tea Party movement, and across the channel to Geert Wilders and his like. (I spotted a Swedish flag in one of the YouTubes of the weekend’s EDL riot in Leicester.) LFF has a post on Melanie Phillips, which, much as I dislike Phillips, I think overstates the case. Worth cross-referencing with what she actually says. The Observer also looks at the EDL’s American links, as does Alex Meleagrou-Hitchens in Standpoint, while the Guardian looks at the European links. CiF also publishes Charles Johnson, of LGF, on Pamela Geller.
On the American links, one bizarre news item is the bizarre American Rabbi, Nachum Shifren, who is a Tea Party electoral candidate in California. Although it is not clear what he knows about them, he is apparently coming to the UK to do a gig for the EDL. This is another sad symptom of the embattled clash of civilisations mentality that has gripped many Jews since the rise in the new antisemitism a decade ago, driving many into the arms of cranky right-wing movements few Jews would have touched a few years ago.
The Jewish Chronicle, true to form, has a poll: should rabbis be involved in the EDL? Anti-Zionist Tony Greenstein urges people to vote yes, to show they are as bad as each other. This, it seems to me, is an act of unbelievable and unforgiveable stupidity, because it will fuel the idea that Jews in general hate Muslims in general, and thus feed the kind of venomous politics represented by the MDL. As with his earlier dishonesty about the Zionist Federation, Tony is playing a dangerous game here, with very serious consequences which he ought to be mindful of. Update: since I wrote this, HP picked up the story. Lippy sums up why this is so wrong: “Rabbis should support EDL – and rabbis are Jewish, not Zionist. So, the opposition to that would be antisemitic, not anti-Zionist. The more Jews join the EDL, the more that justifies Muslim backlash against Jews. (Not Zionists.) The more Jews join the EDL, the easier it is for EDL to say they are not racist, Nazi etc. So, the more other people (be they white, Hindu, whatever) will join the EDL. So, Greenstein’s deceit is a recruiting sergeant for EDL and incites more antisemitism and more Islamophobia. And this from an “anti-racist”???” Later, the JC themselves noticed, and eventually suspended the poll.
One of the things that feeds the EDL and its like is the anti-immigrant narrative that dominates the British political and media landscape. Groups like MigrationWatch talk about an “open debate” on immigration, and claim that the establishment stifles debate about the real issues. (A similar point is made by Walker Morrow of Defend Geert Wilders at The Propagandist, about the debate in mainland Europe.) But the reality, it seems to me, is exactly the opposite: talk about immigration is ubiquitous, and overwhelmingly negative. In fact, in recent weeks, it has been MigrationWatch stifling the debate, using Britain’s archaic and ridiculous laws to try to silence the sensible and courageous Sally Bercow. On this, see Jack of Kent, Iain Dale and Richard Wilson.
Meanwhile, we have to remember our slightly older enemies, the BNP, who may be in disarray but are not yet dead. For two different perspectives on the BNP, see Malatesta and the CST.
If you’ve got this far, I welcome in the comments box reflections on any of the issues I have raised in this post, as I realise that I have raised lots of questions and made no attempt at any answers. If you want to e-mail me (bobfrombrockley at googlemail dot com) with longer accounts or reflections, I will consider publishing them as guest posts.